Thursday, June 11, 2009

What is unique to Catholic music?

From By Dom Ermin Vitry. O.S.B., pp. 160-161

Exactly what differentiates a secular and a Catholic approach to the art of music? One thing: the Chant of the Church. I have hardly thrown this challenge out of the bag than I hear countless forms of protest; and I am confirmed in this fear by recalling the many discussions which have infected previous conventions. The case is evident; then, why should we dodge it? Do not tell me that, let us say, a pianist who is ignorant of the Chant may be as good a Catholic musician as a narrow Gregorianist. Good Catholic perhaps but not a fully radiating Catholic musician!

There are two reasons for this: One is philosophical and spiritual, the other is esthetical. If we admit that Catholic philosophy of music is that view of music which both makes of it a spiritual experience of the Christian soul as such and leads ultimately to God through Christ, then this view is bound to affect the process of formation and the appreciation of musical values. In the history of Western music, the Church is the sole organism which possessed this view and realized it. To express in living terms this philosophy is what justifies her to identify, in a certain measure, worship and music.

Alone, for twenty centuries, she offers to the human heart that song which is, without fancy or detour, a song of life. That song is her Chant which, in the very words of Pius X, is her own. It grew from her life; it is not superimposed over it. Therefore, it is evident that to be immersed in the Chant is the surest way to develop a musical consciousness which is truly and thoroughly Catholic.

I hear a more specious protest. How dare you compare the tiny and purely homophonic Gregorian melodies with the gigantic developments of music in recent times? I have no idea of underrating these achievements; I only challenge them before the bar of the Christian outlook on life. And, to be frank, I would not hesitate to compare Gregorian art with anything which has come after its decline.

The relative supremacy of the Gregorian melody as a song is no longer in doubt. The irrefutable testimony of music scholars is growing day by day, bringing into glaring light the extraordinary craftsmanship of those who composed it. And if, following the inevitable law of all artistic endeavor, the power of its inspiration falls short now and then of the logic of its modal writing, the ensemble of Gregorian literature lives up to the demands of a monumental artistic achievement. At times, Gregorian originality of musical thought and form reaches stunning heights, unsurpassed at any period of musical evolution. Quite a number of prominent music schools have immediately sensed how the study of the Chant might contribute to the development of a sounder musicianship among professional students, regardless of any religious application. For two years now, it has been the privilege of this writer to teach a regular course of Chant in the department of music of a secular University. You may distrust, if you wish, this development as the expression of an avid dilettantism.

That does not, however, excuse our own neglect. On the contrary, it forces us to conclude that at thorough formation in the Chant of the Church is an essential part of all music education which prides itself in being Catholic. I am definitely aware of the fact that, in our own midst, quite a number of educators fear that the place given to the Chant may mean a "loss" in the knowledge and the appreciation of secular music. And, thereby (so they conclude) Catholic youth will be deprived of the opportunities given to the youth of the nation.

Therein lies the abysmal and fatal error. For the Chant contains elements in the formation of musicianship unmatched by any other music. Aside from its supreme value in the integration of worship and song, it leads to a technical experience which is infinitely broader than the scope of school music as it stands in the universal program. I would mention at random versatility of tonal response acquired through modality, unlimited expansion of rhythmic motion as against the tyranny of symmetry, and the appreciation of melodic continuity in a line securely hugging the inflections of the word.

Thus, whether we look at it from a spiritual or an esthetic angle, Gregorian Chant is the authentic foundation of an approach to music which pretends to be Catholic. Alas! our esthetic approach has been no better than our spiritual neglect, notwithstanding all demonstrations to the contrary. This brings back to mind the remark of a prominent choral conductor who, after candidly confessing that his evaluation and his experience of the Chant was insufficient, asked: "But why is the Chant always sung so badly?" And another, a priest of exquisite taste, remarked recently: "The Chant is the music which one cannot impunely murder."

Lastly, let me recall with delight the little Benedictine nun who starts every lesson of piano with the playing of a Gregorian melody by the student. I have stated at length the case of the Chant for the consideration of music educators, not to satisfy a desire for criticism but, rather, to contribute to its final restoration. Hence, the following suggestions, the adoption of which I deem to be imperatively necessary, if we are some day to reach the objectives for which we have accepted a public responsibility. I list them in order of precedence: 1) All religious communities of men and women who are actively engaged in the field of education must, in their respective convents, experience a truly liturgical life. I mean specifically a worship, not incidental, but regular and, if possible daily, in which the Chant permeates the spiritual current of the life of the community. Because the Chant is the music most integrated to spiritual life, one would in vain teach it who has not learned to live it personally and communally.

As the success of the restoration depends more upon wellformed teachers than on methods, the novitiate of every motherhouse should provide for all its candidates a gradual and complete course of Chant, not on a theoretical, but on an experimental basis. Such a course should be on a par with the requirements of, let us say, philosophy, history, literature, education and science.

2) It is disgraceful to meet so many teachers, on the level of higher education, who possess neither appreciation nor experience in sacred song. And it is unfair to deprive our young religious from the spiritual happiness which the melodies of the Church hold in reserve for them.

3) When we have formed competent teachers in the music school of the Church, but not before, the time will have come when, in the music program of the Catholic school, the Chant will have undisputed precedence over every other musical activity. If the experience of secular music will be thereby somewhat limited, musicianship and general appreciation of music will have gained in quality and depth.

These three suggestions are but a summarized translation of the demands explicitly formulated by the authoritative documents of the three most recent Popes. We are now, after fifty years of futile squabbles, at the crossroads of our musical venture. It will be restoration or disaster. May God grant that the Chant shall not die a second death; for, from the latter, it would never revive.

I began with the reminiscence of a lad; I end with the question of another lad, just three weeks ago: "How was it possible that people having such a treasury of song could forfeit it?" I did not answer; but I leave to the National Catholic Music Educators Association the privilege of pondering upon it.

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